Sunday, 5 August 2012

The lad from Stratford (the Midlands one, not the London one)

It is always worthwhile to credit where it is due and in this case, it is @Xris32 who has helped me derive a direction for my blog, at least for a while, after reading his rather excellent blogging debut about how to approach teaching novels. Like @Xris32 I write with slightly newer teachers in mind but old hands may find it of passing interest. Not forgetting @pekabelo who prodded me, in the best possible way, to take the plunge with this topic. With that in mind, I've chosen to focus on my local playwright, Shakesepeare. NOT because I know it all, purely because I often get the MOST enjoyment from teaching his works. Simples. 

Wayne's World flashback: 'diddly do, diddly do, diddly do', screen wibbles and wobbles and I am, back, back to my interview for my PGCE/SCITT course at Northampton School For Boys (yes, a state school) whose most notable alumni is current Doctor Who Matt Smith.  I believe he was a pupil whilst I was there, I'd like to say I met him and taught him, reader, I just can't remember.  

I bet this makes some of you feel old.

I've digressed from my flashback. Re-boot: 'diddly do, diddly do, diddly do'. Screen wibbles and wobbles and we are back in that interview room:

I am asked many questions, not all of which I can remember, but one sticks out, it involves The Bard and goes as follows:

Teacher on panel: 'So, how would you teach Macbeth?'

There as an internal monologue that goes as follows: "Bollocks, what do I know? This person has been teaching for decades, how do I appear at least reasonably intelligent about this?"  

An answer formulates and it is not a long one, it is quite succinct, taciturn even, but it does the job. 

I respond with, 'I'd concentrate on the blood and the gore. It's full of horror, and I love horror.'  

The teachers smile in response and I manage a nervous smile back. 

Waynes World 'flashforward': 'diddly do, diddly do, diddly do', screen wibbles and wobbles and we are back in the present:

So why, after a decade (WHERE did that time go???) of teaching do I still remember this moment and why did the interview panel smile back at me? What follows are my reflections on that answer combined with important points to consider before you begin teaching The Bard. 

1. Focus hocus pocus

Given the vast coverage of the National Curriculum and the GCSE Specifications, you can't languish in teaching the whole text to the nth degree.  I say this but I have a colleague who has done this with Much Ado About Nothing at KS4.  The text was taught in its entirety (which begs the question, to what depth?) and I was harangued on Facebook to help her formulate the GCSE essay question, JUST BEFORE they were about to start writing it.  DON'T do that. You SHOULD zoom in on two or three scenes that provide you and the class with some really varied territory for you to explore together. 

2. Know your audience 

Shakespeare did, you must too.  My rather simple response had at least considered just that. What you may delight in as an adult, a Shakespeare uber-fan isn't necessarily what 'Johnny' has any real interest in.  What would a hormonal, potentially truculent teenager have some interest in? What can they easily grasp that allows you to hang the rest of your teaching from?  What have they already seen or watched in current media that they know that also connects with the text? What kind of images (remember it is a visual and aural medium) can you provide them with that THEY can relate to that helps them make sense of something SO old? 

3. 'Your first duty, an English teacher, is to make them love your subject' 

I'll spare you the Wayne's World wibble and wobble, but this was said to me by an AST in my NQT year and at the heart of what you do with a Shakesepeare text, OK, hands are aloft, English teaching MUST be this.  

I often think of this, but never more so, than with a Shakespeare texts.  You'll tell people that you're an English a Secondary school and when the colour has returned to their faces, people will often tell you (once the taking the p*** out of your holidays has taken place) that, when it came to Shakespeare, they 'just didn't get it' or that, 'they can't see the point of it.' I still get this now and it reminds me to be determined to prove them wrong.

I'm even more determined with a very low ability GCSE group, who test your very teacher soul to the limit, that they CAN get it and it is NOT torture. A triumph is when they begin to thoroughly enjoy the analysis of his language - potentially the most intimidating part of what we do - due to the sense of accomplishment they get out of doing so and that you have provided them with the opportunity to become 'experts' in this field. 

4. Jumpers for goal-posts 

This will seem a little contradictory to the above but the nuts and bolts of this is Shakespeare is on the national curriculum and you will teach it for an assessment.  As @Xris32 and other Twitter tweacher luminaries have ably pointed out, you begin planning with your end goal in sight. For GCSE it is dictated by the focus of the Controlled Assessment.  You have to marry the requirement of the assessment with the MOST appropriate sections or sections from the text and the requirements of the mark scheme.   Think of this as the holy trinity of teaching and assessing the pupil's knowledge & understanding of the text.

For example, last year I taught a very able all girls group WJEC Language and Literature and the CA focus was on 'Male and Female relationships.' The scene that suited my group best was Act 3 Scene 5 - Juliet and Capulet's argument.  

It was a well tailored suit, because they could empathise with both Juliet's refusal to obey and Capulet's disappointment in her. They could form opinions about the violence in the scene and connect this with the language (pace, the crescendo of insults, the blunt rejection by her mother) and melodrama (never hurts to refer to soap opera slanging matches or Jeremy Kyle moments here) present in the scene.  

To merely repeat the scene, for the sake of expediency, would be akin to professional suicide this year. The group is less able,  more boy heavy, and includes a range of SEN, emotional and behavioural issues that dictate the need for change. As does the new focus (different GCSE course and exam board) of power. Will it even be the same Shakespeare text? 

5. Get thee to The Globe

If you've never been, go.  I first went, having completed and survived my PGCE year, in the summer before I began my NQT year to watch an all female cast perform The Taming of the Shrew.  I was a groundling, I'll not lie, my feet and back killed me, but I have an odd sense in pride in having done it.  The atmosphere is joyous and the interior is magnificent, a cathedral to Shakesepeare's plays.  It will remind you, in no uncertain terms, that 'the play's the thing' while at the same timing making you unpick what you thought you knew and re-sew a brand new patchwork of Shakespeare knowledge and understanding. 

I remember looking up and around me, gasping, mouth in a round 'O' and my brain began ticking over re-assessing the plays I'd read and studied.  

Why?  The space makes much more sense of the text and its wordiness. 

Show your class pictures, focus on what is missing (lighting rig, set design, sound effects) focus back on the language, ask them, 'Why are there too many words?' (I like to be be blunt, I like to acknowledge where their heads are at). 'Why is there so much use of imagery?' 'What MUST the audience do?' 'Where does the set-design take place?' 'Find the stage directions in the dialogue' are all questions and ideas that the space provokes and enables them to make sense of the very purpose of the language.   

I go back to The Globe next week, to see The Taming of the Shrew and am mildly perturbed that it's been a decade since I first went to see the very same play in the very same theatre. 

Cliche alert: This is merely the tip of an immense ice-berg.  There many other things to write about and the next one is likely to be about over-coming the inevitable language barrier with some ideas that did work, even with the 'I don't cares' and the 'I ain't bovvereds' in your class. 

Disclaimer: I've only been at this ten years, so cannot possibly have all the answers, but there are some, and some of them might even be useful.

Teaching Shakespeare's plays provide you with the very best of teaching challenges; they make you find the best of your pedagogy; it is when you can be at your most creative and playful. I often find they can be the glue the gels the class together, motoring them forwards with a new sense of accomplishment, purpose and self-belief. 

Oh yes, 'the play's the thing' and it will be 'a hit, a very palpable hit.'

A useful book for teachers new and old:
(More to be added)

Gibson, Rex. Teaching Shakespeare: A handbook for Teachers (Cambridge School Shakespeare) 1998 

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